In His Own Words

In His Own Words

Restonian Vern Wingert reflects on his days working with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

How long have you lived in Reston?

My family has lived in Reston for about 26 years.

What is your occupation?

I’ve pursued government work at all levels—local, state and currently with the federal government.

How did you become a staffer for Martin Luther King, Jr.?

One of Dr. King's aides, Jim Bevel, came to Bethany Theological Seminary — at that time it was located in the Chicago area — in September 1965. In this capacity, Mr. Bevel was representing Dr. King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

(SCLC). Three of the students at the seminary, including me, subsequently volunteered to work with the SCLC Chicago Campaign starting in October 1965. After doing volunteer work for about three months, the three of us were invited to work directly with Dr. King and his staff to help plan and help with the Campaign in January 1966.

In what capacity did you work for MLK and when?

Initially, I had two roles with the campaign starting in October 1965: To visit homes in the West Side neighborhood where I lived to recruit persons to help with the movement, to attend rallies at local churches to hear Dr. King and other speakers, participate in demonstrations and other movement functions; and to assist with conducting research on real estate ownership in the Chicago area and visiting real estate offices in white neighborhoods in Chicago.

The second role was in support of the major focus of the Chicago Campaign — "Open Occupancy". While the Campaign did address deteriorating housing conditions within the "slum areas" on the west and south sides of Chicago, we attempted to relocate black families with children into white areas to provide educational and other opportunities to black children.

I acquired additional roles: I became a member of Dr. King's planning group through which I had the opportunity to work directly with Dr. King and his aides: Andy Young, Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, who was also a graduate seminary student at the University of Chicago, Jim Bevel, Al Raby and others. I helped to plan many of the campaign's demonstrations in white neighborhoods in Chicago such as Gage Park.

Talk about the incident at Gage Park?

On August 5, 1966, one of the most violent demonstrations of the US Civil Rights movement occurred in an area known as Gage Park in Chicago. Several of us arrived in Gage Park with Dr. King, including Andy Young, myself and several others. We were met by about 100 angry white youths, who starting throwing rocks and cherry bomb firecrackers at us. We were chased into a ravine whereupon the youth threw stones and firecrackers down at us. Before we were able to protect Dr. King, he was hit in the head by one of the stones with blood running down the side of his face. Those of us with Dr. King, threw him to the ground and covered him with our bodies to protect him while being pummeled by rocks and firecrackers. With the situation totally out of hand, suddenly we were surrounded by a large number of what we affectionately called "blue angels", Chicago policemen in full riot gear who wore blue uniforms. They, too, then were subjected to barrages of rocks and firecrackers. The only way that they got us out of this situation as well as themselves was to commandeer a metro bus. They forced the frightened driver to drive the bus into the ravine so that we could board it and get out of harms way. Most of the cars that we used to drive to the demonstration at Gage Park were burned by the local youth, including my wife's Volkswagen.

After the demonstration, Dr. King told a local reporter: 'I have never in my life have seen such hate. Not in Mississippi or Alabama. This is a terrible thing.' This is a remarkable statement in of itself, but especially when considered that Dr. King made this statement towards the end of his civil rights movement career after many demonstrations in the south such as Montgomery and Selma, Ala.

During the fall of 1967, my wife and I moved to the south side of Chicago where I had my first pastorate with a Methodist church in Hyde Park located near the University of Chicago. As part of my work, I engaged in community organizing north of the university, while Jesse Jackson was doing the same south of the university in the Woodlawn section. During this time, Jesse Jackson launched his "Operation Breadbasket" on the south side of Chicago which later evolved into the "Rainbow Coalition" movement.

Talk about your involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign.

During the Chicago Campaign, plans had been undertaken by Dr. King and his staff to conduct what he called a "Poor People's Campaign" in Washington, D.C. This campaign was announced by the SCLC on March 4, 1968. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. I graduated from seminary in Chicago in May 1968 and was hired along with two other of my seminary colleagues to represent the Church of the Brethren in the Poor People's Campaign (PPC).

We moved from Chicago to Washington start work with the PPC towards the end of May 1968. The focus of the PPC was on American poverty. To symbolize American poverty, we built a shantytown called "Resurrection City" consisting of small plywood tent-like structures on the Mall. Many of us (including my wife Vicky and I) who worked with the PPC actually lived on the Mall in Resurrection City along with many others from regions of poverty, including northern and southern blacks, Appalachian whites, western Hispanics and American Indians. The PPC was led by SCLC's Ralph Abernathy along with support from Hosea Williams.

Describe the first time you met Dr. King.

Ironically, the first time I met Dr. King was in my hometown of Orlando, Fla., during the summer of 1962. At this time, I was a college student and working as assistant pastor of my home church. After the rally, we went to greet and shake hands with Dr. King. Little did I know at this time what would be in store for me four years later in Chicago.

What inspired you to become involved in the Civil Rights movement?

I saw becoming involved with the Civil Rights movement as an extension of my faith commitment to effecting justice and peace in the world. Once I started living on the west side of Chicago and began experiencing life in the slums (as they were called then), this became an important motivation for me and others to try to dramatize the plight of those trapped in this situation, especially on behalf of the children and their future.

Taking time to look back, how have these experiences shaped your life?

My participation in Civil Rights movement had a significant impact on my life and that of my wife and some 20 years later on my daughter, Rebekah.

These unique experiences helped me understand myself better, provided a catalyst for personal changes, opened up new perspectives on ethnic and cultural issues, taught me many lessons on applying non-violent methods to conflict resolution and made it easier for me to take personal risks on concerns and issues that I consider important. My wife and I have since worked on many peace and justice issues (including local issues in Reston) since our movement days. Our daughter, Rebekah, now lives in Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine, and is engaged in bringing into focus the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a filmmaker.

What would you tell young people to remember about that time period?

I would tell young people to learn to read the "signs of the times" in order to discern when events of special importance that come along and to see in such events unique and life-enhancing opportunities. The U.S. Civil Rights movement is a good example of a part of U.S. history that provided such opportunities. Such opportunities not only provide a catalysts for personal growth, change and maturity, but, also, the means to help shape communities, the nation and even history in decisive and positive ways. Since these events come infrequently and the window of opportunity is often short, it is important to respond positively to them when they come. This is an important lesson that I learned through my participation in the US civil rights movement.

What was your most memorable experience working with Dr. King?

During the Chicago Campaign, Dr. King was invited to attend a World Council of Churches (WCC) conference in Geneva, Switzerland to give the keynote sermon. A few days before Dr. King was to leave to fly to Europe, he decided not to go. He made this decision because the movement was at a crossroads of being derailed by militants in the

black power movement led by Stokely Carmichael. The militants characterized King and the movement as betraying the U.S. black population by pursuing the integration of blacks into white society. Their criticism of Dr. King escalated to the point in Chicago that some of the militants made verbal and physical threats against Dr. King. Once he told the WCC that he could not attend the conference, they asked him if he could prepare his sermon and have it filmed in Chicago. So this is what he did.

Since he didn't have time to prepare his address, he asked a small group of us if we could work with him to prepare his sermon. When asked for some possible themes, I suggested the following: "The Church as the Headlights of History" along with a text from St. Paul. He liked the theme and text. They became the focus of his sermon that was filmed the same day and flown to Geneva and shown at the WCC conference.